Magazine article The New Yorker

Bullets and Ballots

Magazine article The New Yorker

Bullets and Ballots

Article excerpt


In June, 1966, Stokely Carmichael, the twenty-four-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was arrested in Greenwood, Mississippi, for his participation in the March Against Fear, which travelled across the state. The march had been started ten days earlier by James Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi, but he was wounded by a sniper on the second day, and civil-rights figures pledged to complete it on his behalf. After Carmichael was released from jail, he vented his frustration to the crowd. "This is the twenty-seventh time that I have been arrested," he shouted. "I ain't going to jail no more." He concluded that nonviolent direct action had reached its productive limits. "Everybody owns our own neighborhoods except us," he said. "We want Black Power."

The term, as amorphous as it was radically indignant, heralded a shift in the movement's orientation. It called for an insular black political empowerment, in contrast to the prevailing civil-rights ideal of interracial cooperation. "Before a group can enter the open society," Carmichael and the political scientist Charles V. Hamilton wrote, the following year, "it must first close ranks." Between 1964 and 1967, riots erupted across the nation--in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Cleveland, and Newark. The Kerner Commission, convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson, concluded that the systemic exclusion of blacks from opportunity was at the root of the uprisings. Many of the figures in the nascent movement were apostate pacifists who had been baptized in activism under the auspices of Martin Luther King, Jr. They recognized violence as the predictable yield of the conditions in black America, referred to as "internal colonialism," and they saw black self-determination as the most viable solution. Malcolm X said that the racial concerns of the United States would be resolved by either the ballot or the bullet.

For the past two weeks, the images emerging from Ferguson, Missouri, have seemed like a tableau of sixties history. The shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black eighteen-year-old, at the hands of a police officer sparked protests that teetered between precarious peacefulness and furious confrontation, spilling over into sporadic looting and vandalism. One night during the first week, as heavily armed police lobbed cannisters of tear gas and fired rubber bullets into the crowd, a local activist said that the scene reminded him of Birmingham in 1963, minus the fire hoses. Brown's death and the police department's abrasive handling of the case ignited tensions that extended far beyond a single case of alleged excessive force.

The city of Ferguson, which is sixty-seven per cent black, has never had a black mayor, and five of its six city-council members are white. Only three of its fifty-three police officers are black. These are the kinds of disparities that the Black Power movement set out to eliminate nationally. But today few African-Americans engage in the political process in Ferguson. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a state senator whose district includes Ferguson, points to poverty, the youth of the population, and high levels of transience as being among the reasons. Some also cite districting and other local electoral particularities as factors. It's obvious that Ferguson's black population is far underrepresented politically, less apparent that it is more likely to be poor. The issue is as much class as it is race.

Country Club Hills is a smaller neighboring city that has a similar demographic history, as a suburb that transitioned from mostly white to majority black--in this case, ninety per cent. …

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